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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

A Brief History of Mass Transit

President Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation creating the federal transit program on July 9, 1964. In 2024, we will celebrate the 60th anniversary of the transit program. Follow along to view highlights of FTA (and its predecessor, UMTA) as we highlight nearly six decades of transforming transit in America.

1954: Dawn of the Interstate Highway Era

Vice President Richard Nixon represented his boss, President Eisenhower, at a meeting of the nation’s governors in Lake George, NY. The Vice President told the governors of the administration’s plan to build a new network of coast-to-coast highways, a project that soon came to be called the Interstate Highway System. For its future ground transportation needs, the United States was making a major investment in new roadways … but in very little else.

1960: A First Attempt Fails

A bill was introduced in the Senate that would have provided federal assistance for mass transportation. While it actually passed the Senate, it never emerged from committee in the House of Representatives.

1961: Federal Assistance for Mass Transportation Becomes Law of the Land!

President John F. Kennedy supports a proposal to establish federal assistance for mass transportation, introduced in the Senate again, this time as part of a larger urban housing bill, and it was enacted into law. President Kennedy signed the Omnibus Housing Act on June 30, 1961 and said that mass transportation is "…a distinctly urban problem and one of the key factors in shaping community development."

The 1961 act did not initiate broad scale federal assistance for mass transportation. It provided $50 million for loans and $25 million—taken out of urban renewal funds—in outright grants for demonstration pilot projects in mass transportation. Said The New York Times: "This is essentially an interim program, pending broader Administration requests next year."

1962: Capital Assistance for Mass Transportation Proposed. . .

President Kennedy sends a major transportation message to Congress. It called for the establishment of a program of federal capital assistance for mass transportation. Said President Kennedy: "To conserve and enhance values in existing urban areas is essential. But at least as important are steps to promote economic efficiency and livability in areas of future development. Our national welfare therefore requires the provision of good urban transportation, with the properly balanced use of private vehicles and modern mass transport to help shape as well as serve urban growth."

. . . But President Kennedy does not live to see the bill enacted into law.

July 9, 1964: President Johnson Carries Forward Kennedy’s Legacy on Transit

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Urban Mass Transportation Act into law on July 9, 1964. The new measure provided $375 million in capital assistance over three years. It passed the House by a vote of 212-to-129 and cleared the Senate 52-41.

“We are a nation of travelers. You cannot write our history without devoting many chapters to the pony express, the stagecoach, the railroad, the automobile, the airplane. . . Yet, until 1964, the Federal Government did little or nothing to help the urban commuter.” – President Lyndon B. Johnson, on Remarks at the Signing of the Urban Mass Transportation Act